Not since 1820 has a US jury carried a piracy conviction. That changed yesterday when five Somali men found guilty of attacking the USS Nicholas were sentenced to life in prison in a Norfolk Federal Court. The sentencing might be a drop in the bucket given the current piracy endemic, but was nonetheless a significant step forward – symbolically and legally – in the fight that wages daily off the Horn off Africa.

The pirates’ defense centered on the claim that they had been abducted and forced to fire their weapons on the Nicholas. Judge Mark Davis ruled in favor of the government and sentenced the men to life in prison plus an additional 80 years for the use of illegal firearms. Life in prison is a tough but reasonable (and in fact, mandatory) sentence considering piracy is a universal crime (the legal cousin of slavery and genocide), and that the last convicted pirate that stood before a US court for sentencing was put to death.

US Attorney Neil MacBride led a landmark case not only because his conviction demonstrates to the American people that the US Navy is determined to interdict and arrest pirates at sea, but also to the world that the US Justice Department is willing and able to prosecute and convict pirates at home.

This sentence also sends a message back to the pirate camps that litter the Somalian coast: if you attack a US ship, you will be captured and jailed for life. Or, as has been the fate of at least two pirates on the Quest and Maersk Alabama in the past two years, worse.

And the Justice Department isn’t done with pirates yet.

Fourteen suspected pirates have recently been indicted by a federal grand jury for their involvement in the attack on the yacht Quest which resulted in the murder of Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. They will face piracy, kidnapping and firearms charges. Currently there are no murder charges as the investigation is on-going.

While the legal impact of this case is indeed in the landmark realm, it’s true the immediate impact of the Nicholas convictions will be nominal with respect to the number of attacks in the short term. It does, however, send an important political message to other nations with a stake in security in the region in the mid to long term. With nearly 800 Somali pirates in prisons in 14 different countries awaiting trial (and hundreds more simply released due to the legal complexity of such cases) the message from the US is this: piracy is an intolerable crime whose thugs will be prosecuted vigilantly and convicted to full extent of the law.

Will other nations that patrol these troubled waters with us follow course?

Posted by Alexander Martin in Maritime Security, Piracy

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  • Smiley1081

    Isn’t that a lifetime holiday on Uncle Sam expense, considered their previous lifestyle?

  • RickWilmes
  • Matt Yankee

    The problem will not go away until we attack them at their bases ashore. I wander how many hundreds if not thousands we could imprison for life and still not have any significant affect on the problem of piracy off the Horn. But hey, we are made of money apparently so who cares if we drag out yet another crisis for a couple more decades. The American taxpayer deserves better and the Navy deserves to be consequential and decisive. Until then we remain “stuck on stupid” at the Horn.

  • RHSchumann

    That’s great, it really is.
    But why can ships cruising in international waters not be equipped to fight off pirates?
    And of course the Somali pirates are resorting to it out of sheer desperation. Probably the only way to feed a family there right now. As long as Somalia is a dysfunctional country, there will be ever more pirates.
    By the way, in Hamburg, Germany, they are holding the first trial against pirates since Klaus Stoertebecker, who was tried there more than 500 years ago. Stoertebecker and his crew were publicly beheaded, a fate which will not befall the Somali pirates currently on trial.

  • KhakiPants

    I’m a bit confused… and why don’t we execute pirates anymore? Not a cent for tribute, but millions for… er… placing pirates inside of the Federal Holiday Inn?

    The message needs to be, if you attack a US flagged vessel, you will be captured, tried, and executed.

  • Matt Yankee

    Are we the only “Great Power” in human history to be stupid enough to put lawyers on our ships of war? Forget about 500 yrs. I bet in 5000 yrs no “Great Power” was ever that stupid. And if they did become that stupid how long did they last after becoming that stupid?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Pelican Bay not Club Fed I most sincerely hope.

  • Gunner

    The primary reason that merchant ships are not allowed to carry firearms is that many (if not most) have no fixed schedule or route. They may call a port in Egypt, load cargo and sail for China. After discharging that cargo, they might next sail for the U.S. West Coast, etc., etc., etc. Remember that most nations have MUCH tougher gun laws than the US.

    Do you think AMERICA is going to allow armed merchant ships into our ports? No. Heck we have a hard enough time just getting some of these ships to meet basic safety and oil pollution standards.

    Even if port states could be convinced to allow merchant ships to carry weapons, the training standards and allowable firearms would be all over the map, and no company is going to spend the $$$ to train and equip their crews.

    Smaller fishing trawlers (which make up the bulk of the piracy targets) of course don’t have the money or the time to learn how to properly use firearms (and then maintain that proficiency) and the ships don’t have the space to properly store them. Without both training and storage, having guns aboard ships is just a recipe for giving more guns to pirates or shore-side criminals. (Again, not to mention that most of the home ports for these ships have VERY strict gun laws).

    As far as post-capture treatment goes, isn’t HAVING laws precisely what separates us from them? Aren’t we SUPPOSED to be the best nation in the world? How are we supposed to remain an example for the rest of the world if we don’t hold ourselves to a higher standard?

  • Keith Rosenberg

    A close blockade of the ports where they operate from might do a lot also. But is it legal?

  • Matt Yankee

    I am pretty sure officers of the US Navy are capable of distinguishing right from wrong and do not need the help of lawyers. Does warfare really abide by some rigid set of laws anyway? Isn’t the job of a military to understand the “Art of War” and not be lectured to by lawyers who do not understand a world without directions…or laws. Maybe the lawyers should be sent to Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and a few other battlefields so that they can lecture the enemy on how to do their jobs…

    We will spend more money babysitting the Horn over the next decade than taking a battalion ashore for 30 days and cleaning house and then leaving. The Quest deserves a response greater than any impident lawyer can fathom.

  • Byron

    Grandpa, I’d prefer they get that SuperMax out in Colorado..

  • leesea

    Gunner the reasons that only certain weapons ARE allowed on merchant ships is international shipping agreements and their implementation by port states. US naval auxilaries and sealift ships ARE allowed to enter foreign ports with weapons onboard.

    The KEY to providing for force protection of US flag ships is to have naval personnel on them with weapons and trained to defend them. US govt personnel routinely board and debark from US flag ships with sovereign immunity in foreign ports.

    OR as I have recommended: Re-establish the Naval Armed Guards on US flag ships under COMSC’s control.

    Keith I would not try to set up a blockade (all sorts of legal problems), but I have said for sometime a control zone such as Operation Market Time is doable off Somalia.

  • Alexander Martin

    Market Time is a great model. Problem on the resource side is the low density-high demand aspect of the P3. Drones are an option; again, it comes down to resources – with the amount of ISR currently required in Afghanistan (and still in Iraq) HOA has yet to achieve what’s needed (ridiculous levels of violence and chaos that exceeds what’s happening in Southwest Asia) to feel the benefit of a significant resource pull.

    Do I think the pirates should have gotten sentenced to death? I’m not sure. Life is cheap in that part of the world. For us it’s easy to say that a death sentence is the harshest punishment imaginable. For many in that region, sadly, they’re born with a death sentence (which is why they become pirates in the first place). The point is if they were sentenced to death it wouldn’t matter to the other Somalian pirates very much; but the fact that they were captured, tried and sentenced to life in prison should matter a great deal to the rest of us in this country.

    And I’m not too worried about the cost it will take to keep them in prison. I’m happy my taxes go to house violent criminals. That’s what prisons are there for…much of the waste in our penal system stems from problems with laws that lock up petty-non-violent criminals.

    And as for lawyers (from a small unit commander’s perspective): some get in the way, others help out a great deal. It really all depends. When we were attached to TF 150,151,and 152 we did not have a lawyer with us, but the instructions we received from our JAG prior to our first assault in the GOA was extremely beneficial and facilitated the conduct of our raid.

    And there’s more…but for now I’ll just say that this case was a victory for what would not have been imaginable only five years ago. What counts from this moment on is that we leverage this success in the fight against piracy.

    Which up until moments like these felt a lot like we were ‘pushing against the ocean.’

  • Byron

    Alexander, what if they start missing mother ships and skiffs? They started out with skiffs and got the first ship. They worked your way up from there. I understand that they don’t value life as we do; the events depicted in Blackhawk Down convinces me of that. Life is dirt cheap and worth less. We have to find some way of making piracy un-economical for them. Case in point is that they have too many ships being held now, so they’re cutting the ransom price to move more ships! They must have read the story of Wal Mart! We just have to find a way to make piracy unprofitable.

  • Alexander Martin

    Byron, totally. With respect to the mother-ship/skiff issue, the most thorny aspect is that more often than not these mother ships are actually still captained and crewed by legitimate mariners. So what you have on your hands is a pretty dicey hostage situation. The skiffs are another matter – with two million square miles of sea-space they are the needle to the proverbial haystack.